By Adam Possener
The orchestra suddenly stops, and the hall falls silent. The back door slams shut, and out comes not a latecomer, but a veiled figure dressed in black making his way to the stage. As he throws a bouquet of flowers into the audience, the figure, Polish countertenor Michał Sławecki, begins to sing ‘Dido’s Lament,’ an aria by baroque composer Henry Purcell. The music then turns into a glorious techno-orchestral mashup, with electronic sounds pouring from loudspeakers around the auditorium. Not for long, however. Soon the music cuts out, as a recording of the 911 call from the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting begins to play.
We realise that our understanding of the music was wrong. What we thought to be purely entertaining was actually tragic. Sławecki is retrospectively turned into a victim of the massacre, with the orchestra performing the music of the nightclub. ‘One in three people will die alone,’ declares an electronic voice, as Sławecki recapitulates Dido’s Lament. While he continues to sing, the orchestra files off stage. The audience, left grappling with what they have just experienced, erupts into a standing ovation, applauding the composer, Rafał Ryerski, who has just stepped on stage. ‘Totentanz’ (‘dance of the dead’) is his first orchestral piece. The significance of a piece so explicitly exploring violence against queer people being performed in a country politically fraught with homophobia is not lost on anyone. Ryerski is reduced to tears as he takes a bow.
This was the final concert of the 65th Warsaw Autumn, an annual nine-day international music festival held in Poland since 1956. The festival presents a diverse programme of new music, including contemporary classical music, electro-acoustic compositions, as well as performance art, films and the occasional DJ set. Its scale, diversity and the large audience it attracts makes it unlike anything in the UK. Working closely with the Fryderyk Chopin University of Music and the Polish Composers’ Union, the festival fosters a vibrant community of musicians, young and old, striving for experimentation.
The commission of Ryterski’s ‘Totentanz’, an unapologetic expression of queer solidarity, as the closing piece of the festival is emblematic of the political values of the Polish musical avant-garde. When I asked Ryterski how he felt about this commission, he told me he originally intended to have a drag queen perform the solo, instead of a countertenor. Eventually, he dropped the idea for fear of it being too provocative. He hoped he could avoid making the work too explicitly radical, focusing instead on other social issues – the pandemic, climate change, inflation and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. ‘I failed spectacularly,’ he told me. Unsurprisingly, his work was one of the most explicit and ostentatious displays of queerness and radical politics on show.
Avant-garde music has historically been a place of refuge and a site of resistance against conservative and oppressive governments. It is widely known that most artists in Poland today are self-described oppositionists to the government. Works premiered at Warsaw Autumn have grappled with complex politics since its inception – starting with the de-Stalinization period during which the country was subject to martial law. Considering its subversive nature, it is surprising that the initiative is funded by the Ministry of Culture, which is currently headed by Piotr Gliński, a member of the national-conservative Law and Justice Party. The Party’s commitment to cultural nation building, apparently includes upholding Poland’s reputation as a pioneer of experimental music. The avant-garde, which it is supposedly so proud of, remains no less critical of its nationalistic agenda, however. The ways in which the relationship between the political and the aesthetic is materialized mean that political activism through music can never be pure. Among the ‘honorary patrons’ of the festival is Minister for Culture and National Heritage Piotr Gliński, a Law and Justice minister who advocates for Poland’s infamous LGBT-free zones. Yet the other ‘honorary patron’ is the mayor of Warsaw, Rafał Trzaskowski, who signed a declaration of support for LGBT communities in 2019. These competing ideologies are built into the financial infrastructure of the festival but are still technically removed from the artistic content. The government’s role as facilitator, however, still carries tremendous weight, as it possesses the ability to defund the festival and it is very difficult to know what goes on behind closed doors in terms of programming.
Among the composers, performers and attendees I spoke to, there is a sense that a balance must be struck between subversion and conformity. Not that the music would be explicitly censored. Rather, the negotiatory relationship is between artists and their audience. It would be easy to conclude that the festival is culturally permissive only as an anti-radical appeasement strategy of sorts, the attempt of a repressive government to render political discontent innocuous as it is sublimated into music. Ryterski told me he felt the government is actually ‘caught in a bind’ without realising it. Warsaw Autumn is a cultural institution. There would be immense backlash were it to be defunded, or its artistic freedom taken away. The government would underestimate the power of new music to challenge and confront socio-political issues. The festival exists in an ambiguous state between subversion of and reliance on the government. Still, when the music is performed on the festival stage, meaning is created only by those present. The state could not control the values and meanings created in the dramatic act of performance.
The special relationship between the performer and its audience is still no absolute guarantee for political subversion free from contrivance. A screening of Hans Karl Breslauer’s 1924 silent film, Die Stadt ohne Juden (‘The City Without Jews’) was overlayed with a new musical score by Olga Neuwirth, performed live at the festival by the Norwegian BIT20 Ensemble. The film tells the story of the republic of Utopia. Faced with a major economic crisis, its people find a scapegoat – the Jews, who are then expelled from the country by the newly elected antisemitic chancellor. Soon after, the republic came to feel the losses this inflicted on its culture and social economy. One of the exiled Jews, Leo Strakosch, returns to the republic in secret to persuade the officials of their mistake.
The piece’s performance in Warsaw, a city itself without many Jews, added another layer of meaning to it, especially in the context of recent debates over Poland’s involvement in the Holocaust. Since its inception in 2001, the Law and Justice Party has sought to whitewash the memory of the holocaust. In 2018, a proposed amendment to the Act on the Institute of National Remembrance would have made illegal any public attribution of responsibility for the Holocaust to Poland. This is just one instance of the party’s so-called ‘pedagogy of pride’. A striking example of this attempted erasure involves the Jedwabne pogrom of 1941 in which 300 Jews in northeast Poland were locked in a barn and burned alive by a few dozen ethnic Poles. In 2001, the then-President Aleksander Kwaśniewski issued an official apology for the pogrom, only to be criticized fourteen years later by President Andrej Duda, who dismissed the apology as tarnishing Poland’s good name.
The inclusion of Die Stadt ohne Juden in Warsaw Autumn is an act of acknowledgement of the importance of Holocaust memory. Similarly, the Polish composer Krzysztof Knittel, who was featured at the festival in 2021 contributed music to the 1999 documentary Gdzie mój starszy syn Kain ('Where is my elder son Cain') which brought the facts of the Jedwabne pogrom to light. Whilst the festival acknowledges the importance of Holocaust memory and education in a way that the government does not, the cultural artefact used to showcase was Austrian, not Polish, diluting somewhat the force of the message.
The entanglement of avant-garde and politics is not always a conflicting one, however. This year, the festival united against the war in Ukraine – a message also promoted by the incumbent government – by featuring a wide array of contemporary Ukrainian composers. ‘Against the backdrop of Russian thugs’ invasion on our neighbours,’ said Polish Composers’ Union Chairman Mieczysław, ‘music sooths no manners, but forbids us to forget.’ Whilst orchestras in the UK were performing ‘The Great Gate of Kyiv’ from Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ – a slightly inappropriate choice given the Russian nationalism it portrays – the Ukrainian and Polish avant-garde are confronting Russia’s violence head-on.
Of the newly commissioned works by Ukrainian composers, two stood out. The first, ‘Prostory Svitla’ (‘Spaces for light’) by Alla Zagaykevych, a piece commissioned for the final concert, draws on Ukraine’s rich history of artistic futurism from the 1920s. Zagaykevch stresses that although ‘humanity can already hear the sounds of Mars, we still need ambassadors of the future, visionaries, inventors of new thinking, discoveries of new ways of developing art and society.’ Zagaykevych’s piece – a constantly shifting equilibrium between electronics and orchestra – testifies the nation-building powers of the avant-garde. Embedded in Ukraine’s artistic tradition, it at the same time grapples with the social and cultural issues the country is facing today.
Katarina Gryvul’s ‘Vydykh’ (‘exhale’), written for violin, piano, and electronics, although a much smaller and more intimate set up than Zagaykevych’s composition, also stood out. The piece reflects on how everything seems to be in a state of inhalation, unable to exhale until some resolution about the future Ukraine comes about. Even then, she writes, ‘we will not be able to exhale completely, because of the memory that we will carry forever.’
Given the long history of Russian imperialism in Poland, the widespread support for Ukraine among Poles is perhaps obvious, though no less deeply emotive. The subversive and anti-imperialist nature of the festival's support for Ukraine, should not prevent us from interrogating the motive of the Polish government to present itself as anti-Russia. The Law and Justice Party’s deep insecurity about their standing among the rest of the European Union might have been a more insidious motive for the cultural solidarity that the festival presented in Autumn 2022.
This rare alignment of a progressive cause with the conservative agenda of the government is unlikely to have a lasting impact, however. The Ukrainian conflict has strongly influenced the programme of the festival this year, thus spurring the avant-garde to align its progressive rhetoric to the one of the conservative government it traditionally opposes. Yet whether this came at the actual expense of an alternative line-up that would have been more critical of the government is mere speculation. We should not conceptualise this temporary alignment of the avant-garde as a zero-sum game. Instead, we are left to observe that the lines separating the avant-garde and the political elite in Poland have been blurred for 65 years and their deep entanglement will continue to exist for many more years to come.
ADAM POSSENER reads for a BA in Music at St Anne’s. He spends most of his time thinking about writing about writing about music.
Art by Alex Knighton